Group selection

proposed mechanism of evolution

Group selection is a proposed mechanism of evolution in which natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual.

Humanity has developed extremely rapidly, arguably through gene-culture coevolution, leading to complex cultural artefacts like the gopuram of the Sri Mariammam temple, Singapore.


  • Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters. Further, little evidence exists that selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait. Finally, other, more plausible evolutionary forces, like direct selection on individuals for reciprocal support, could have made humans prosocial. These reasons explain why only a few biologists, like [David Sloan] Wilson and E. O. Wilson (no relation), advocate group selection as the evolutionary source of cooperation
    • Jerry Coyne, "Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton?" New York Review of Books, September 9, 2011.
  • I will argue that group selection is important, contrary to the prevailing dogma among biologists. If group selection is important, Prisoner's Dilemma is not a good model for evolution. It is still an amusing toy for mathematicians and game-theorists to play with.
    • Freeman Dyson, "The Prisoner's Dilemma: Is it a model for the evolution of cooperation in the real world, or is it only a mathematical toy?" (2012)
  • I do not believe the fashionable dogma. Here is my argument to show that group selection is important. Imagine Alice and Bob to be two dodoes on the island of Mauritius before the arrival of human predators. Alice has superior individual fitness and has produced many grandchildren. Bob is individually unfit and unfertile. Then the predators arrive with their guns and massacre the progeny indiscriminately. The fitness of Alice and Bob is reduced to zero because their species made a bad choice long ago, putting on weight and forgetting how to fly. I do not take the Prisoner’s Dilemma seriously as a model of evolution of cooperation, because I consider it likely that groups lacking cooperation are like dodoes, losing the battle for survival collectively rather than individually.

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